My first encounter with the Spanish language was through a study abroad program in college. I spent three months at a foreigner’s school in Guadalajara, Mexico. This was quite brave as French had been my linguistic endeavor in school and I didn’t know a bit of Spanish. Everyone I spoke with had to repeat themselves at least once. It seemed the only word I could correctly use was “que?”

Before I knew it, my three-month exchange program had timed out just as I was getting the hang of the language! Luckily, I was given a second chance to master the Spanish vernacular in Barcelona.

Photo credit

But just because Barcelona is in Spain doesn’t mean everybody speaks Spanish.

Have a look around the city. Go to the gas station, the supermarket, the bakery, the hair salon. Alarmingly for Spanish learners hoping for the benefits of full cultural immersion and a quick and easy language pick-up, the majority of the visual text here will not coincide with any Spanish book.

In Catalunya, there are two official languages.

I’ve been in Barcelona for almost two and a half years and now I can safely say that I’m pretty darn fluent. But even before I was using the imperfect subjunctive* correctly, I was being bombarded with Catalan. I remember going to coffee with my boss and some old friends of hers. Though they were fully aware that I didn’t understand Catalan, it was impossible for them to speak to each other in Spanish. My boss lept saying, “en Castellano!” But after a few sentences, the conversation would revert back to Catalan. There is definitely a feeling of discouragement as you are struggling to make progress in one language while simultaneously being reminded that even if you spoke that language perfectly, it still wouldn’t be enough to be allowed in all the social circles here. Photo credit

It was kind of an ordeal when I went to my boyfriend’s parents’ house for Christmas lunch last year. For one of the first times, their family was forced to interact in Spanish. It’s intense enough meeting the parents when everyone speaks the same language. Trying to make your best impression with a “foreign” one is even more complicated. I was freaking out deciphering whether to speak to his parents in “usted” (formal) or “tu” (informal), while they continued asking, “Are you sure you don’t understand any Catalan?”

My experience learning Spanish here in Barcelona has been challenging. I confuse Catalan words for Spanish ones subconsciously because Catalan is what visually surrounds me every day. Further, I still encounter the basic difficulties inherent in any language learning process. Not being able to express what a beautiful sunset you’re seeing for not knowing whether sunset is masculine or feminine is particularly frustrating. Or my personal speech problem: not being able to correctly pronounce my street name, “Villarroel,” due to inability with rolling “R’s” as they often do in Spanish.

My advice is as follows: if you want to learn Spanish in Spain fast and easy, go to Madrid. If you like a challenge and accept the herculean task of learning two languages at once, welcome to Catalunya!

Bilingual city

*Imperfect Subjunctive is a verb tense in Spanish. In English, it would be something like this: “If I were you, I’d finish those vegetables” (subjunctive) versus “If I was you, I’d finish those vegetables” (past simple). The former example, “If I were you,” and the subjunctive tense itself, are now outdated in modern American English, although they are still heard in British English.

This is a guest post by Kim Jordan. Kim is a 26 year-old Seattle native currently teaching dance and English in Barcelona, Spain. She graduated from the University of Washington with a major in Sociology and a minor in Dance. You can also find Kim on her blog.

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